Using Conflict Effectively – Shifting From Combative to Collaborative

Culture Transformation Hazell & Collins

Conflict is inevitable in business. But it’s also essential to achieving stronger, more robust outcomes. So why do so many organizations struggle with conflict, and how can you turn a potentially aggressive disagreement into an opportunity for positive collaboration? What’s needed is an organizational culture transformation around the idea of conflict.
Within every team, cohort, workgroup or organization there will always be various different viewpoints, perspectives, and experiences. The hallmark of the most successful teams is their ability to recognize the importance of conflict, manage it effectively, and create an environment where these different perspectives can be shared, considered, and incorporated into the final decision.
It’s natural to try and avoid conflict, but as an effective leader, it’s absolutely critical that you’re able to engage it in productively while ensuring everyone remains engaged, aligned, and satisfied with the result going forward.


Shifting From Combative to Collaborative

Many people tend to think of conflict as a win/loss scenario. Instead of listening to understand and build on other people’s ideas, they try to invalidate them and put forward their own argument. Basically, they approach conflict trying to win – a natural evolutionary ‘fight for scarce resources’ response. Because this is often an emotional and combative process, it’s unproductive, and does nothing to advance the organization forward.
Effective leaders recognize this tendency. They are able to manage their inner ‘reactivity’ to conflict, and are able to shift the conversation away from a person’s position and move it toward identifying their underlying interest.

An interest is the deeper want that a person wants to protect or achieve, while a person’s position is their proposed way of reaching that underlying want. Too often, conflicts break down because everyone is focused on defending their own position, rather than finding the best way to reach their shared underlying interests.
Conflict savvy leaders use their listening skills and ask great questions in order to probe for their colleagues’ real underlying interests. By starting here, it’s far easier to get everyone aligned and working together. At that point, the discussion can become more open and collaborative as people start to brainstorm new ideas and come up with the best-shared solution. This approach lets people evaluate ideas more objectively, and makes it easier for people to see the merits of other people’s solutions while still feeling that their views are being heard.

When done effectively, more information will be incorporated into the decision, and the collaborative efforts of everyone working together will often result in a new, more robust solution than any of those originally presented.


Before Moving Forward – Make Sure Everyone Is Aligned

Before reaching a decision, you need to ensure everyone involved is aligned with the result. This doesn’t mean everyone has to agree entirely, but they must be comfortable enough to be engaged going forward. It’s absolutely critical that you don’t rush and end a conflict prematurely.
In order to get everyone aligned, you as a leader must ensure that everyone around the table has their ideas heard, acknowledged, and considered. If someone raises a concern or is not onboard with a decision, it’s important to dig deeper and arrive at the root of their disagreement.
Their fresh perspective and unique piece of insight or information that nobody else has presented could be information that’s valuable to the decision making process. Having these discussions openly, honestly, and intentionally is essential to making sure everyone leaves the conflict engaged and satisfied, even if their ideas don’t end up incorporated in the final decision.


My Challenge To You: Define What Conflict Looks Like For Your Team

The best teams have a predictable framework around how and when they will engage in conflict. Because everyone knows what to expect, they can tone down their emotions and focus on productively co-creating the best solutions. To encourage productive conflict, start by sketching out what it looks like to you. Ask yourself:
• What are the parameters of conflict within your team? How can the existing corporate or team values help you clarify how will it be conducted and what is off limits?
• How will you ensure each person’s perspectives and ideas are heard in conflicts?
• When is engaging in conflict necessary in order to reach a better outcome?
• What are you working toward when engaging in conflict?
• How will you know when a conflict has been resolved and everyone is aligned with the result?



It’s natural to try and avoid conflict, but doing so removes the opportunity to find innovative solutions to challenging problems. By embracing conflict and understanding how to use it effectively, you can help your organization achieve better outcomes while keeping everyone aligned, engaged, and involved.



Marilyn Osborne is VP, Leadership Strategy at Hazell & Collins Associates. Learn more about our Leadership Strategy services.

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